November 2014 | Classroom Commentary
Access to Opportunity: Limitations to Equity in Science Education
By Lisa Blank
Providing every student with a path to academic success requires a revolution in what we do. —Jeffrey Benson
Lack of access to opportunity in science education has resulted in setbacks for many students. Repeatedly, stories are told of students attempting to gain entry into military academies, highly prestigious universities, and other competitive programs only to be rejected or encouraged to reapply after completing additional college-level courses. Usually, these students have exhausted their options for advanced courses. Students wishing to pursue health-related programs often spend an additional year in state university programs because they lack access to basic science courses such as biology and anatomy/physiology. The stories of access blocked, or education extended because of the limitations imposed on small, isolated, rural schools, are seemingly endless.
As a military-impacted spouse and teacher of chemistry, I have had the fortunate experience to teach in three states over the past 20 years. My experiences range from teaching in a large, highly competitive suburban high school, to my current position at a very small single-building district in a rural, isolated region near the Canadian border. While there are no cracks for students to fall through in this small school, challenges exist regarding availability of resources and subject-area professional development. Equipment I had taken for granted as standard, including items such as UV/visible spectrophotometers, are not available in my current school. This limits the access of students to resources and opportunities that support readiness for post-secondary education. Budget cuts in recent years have even made replacing lab consumables challenging.
When considering access to opportunity, an article in the September 2014 issue of Chemistry Solutions, “Teaching Science in Elementary School,” addresses the discrepancy in access to resources and speaks of obstacles created by state testing in elementary schools. Equity in school funding has been battled out in courts across the nation since the 1970s and yet the article points out that equity still does not exist (2). My experiences have led me to believe that there has been a significant decline in equity in some regions that have relied heavily upon dwindling state funds.
The obstacles to providing opportunity in the sciences to students appear insurmountable when one views the situation from that of a small, poor, rural setting in Upstate New York. Staffing has been cut to minimal levels in many rural schools throughout the state. Because of low student enrollment, high school courses typically have only a single section, allowing for little differentiation. The teachers who teach these courses manage five to seven different course preparations per day, typically covering grades 6–12. Students may only have access to core, state-mandated courses taught by teachers stretched to their limits. These teachers sometimes teach courses outside of their certification areas and therefore often lack the knowledge and expertise essential to high-quality instruction. The few students who are able may pay for additional opportunities that extend education beyond the boundaries of school walls. Access to opportunities beyond school facilities is further limited by time and distance.
As standards are considered, it is clear across the nation that math and English/language arts have been focal points of attention in education in recent years. With limited resources, schools tend to focus on these areas, devoting little time and money to science standards, teaching methods, and resources. While skills in ELA and math are essential, sciences and technology are also essential as these areas are key drivers for the nation’s economy. The Next Generation Science Standards provide promise for renewed focus on science education, but the slow consideration of their adoption in states such as New York makes one wonder how much time will lapse before science education receives the attention and support it deserves for the benefit of students and the nation as a whole.
If we as a nation value equity in opportunity for students, we must take a serious look at the opportunity gaps that exist for our students. We need to seek creative ways to work together with institutions of higher education to improve opportunity and access for all students. Advances in technology provide some solutions that can help. Online courses can provide opportunities that seem to work well for highly motivated students. In the case of lab sciences, hybrid courses that involve a course taught primarily online with either a rotating teacher or a teacher onsite facilitating labs can be an option. Another pathway is to negotiate with colleges and universities to make college courses accessible to students. These courses could be offered at the colleges or universities, online, or via more traditional distance learning modes. Support is also needed in the form of grants and funding from federal, state, and local sources to support such access. Collaboration on many levels will be essential in narrowing the gaps in opportunity for students. While the challenges in promoting equity in science education are great, as concerned educators we must take a stand for our students and the nation as a whole and act to promote the sort of equity and opportunity we value as a nation.
- Benson, J. (November 21, 2013). Getting a Foothold on Differentiated Instruction. ASCD INSERVICE: http://inservice.ascd.org/books/getting-a-foothold-on-differentiated-instruction/.
- Hunter, M. A. (March 2007). School Funding Litigation Overview: National Historical Overview. National Access Network: http://www.schoolfunding.info/litigation/overview.php3.
Lisa Blank (middle and bottom)